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Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Knole Part One





In late September I set out for Knole, the palatial estate located in the Kent countryside, once owned by the Archbishops of Canterbury.

In the 15th century Archbishop Bourchier had built the inner Gatehouse Tower, which which was subsequently named after him, as well as the Great Hall. It speaks volumes as to what a consummate statesman Archbishop Bourchier must have been that  he managed to anoint three different kings, the last two of whom, Richard III and Henry VII were arch enemies, during the turbulent period of the War of the Roses, yet had still managed to die of old age in his bed at Knole. However it was another Archbishop, the
Protestant martyr Thomas Cranmer, who was obliged to relinquish Knole to Henry VIII in the 1540s when the latter took a fancy to it. The King deemed the hunting in the surrounding parkland to be excellent and refused to take no for an answer when he determined to make Knole his own. Henry had the palace enlarged to accommodate his courtiers. The outer central gatehouse and West Front reflect the changes he wrought to the much smaller medieval mansion.
Subsequently, the house passed through various royal owners, including Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, who presented it at one point to her erstwhile lover, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. In the early 17th century it passed out of royal ownership altogether and into the hands of commoners. It has remained within the Sackville family ever since, although the house itself is now owned by the National Trust with the family leasing their private quarters which are closed to the general public.

Thomas Sackville was as determined and as unscrupulous as ever Henry VIII had been when it came to getting his greedy little mitts on Knole. In Thomas’s case he was able to get the house and land at a knockdown price by exploiting his position at court to conceal his double dealings. Once it was in his hands, he used his wealth to extensively remodel the mansion in the early 1600s. One of the guides explained that the house was very much a template for Jacobean interior decoration. Charlton House near Greenwich was built in 1607 by Sir Adam Newton, tutor to Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales. Robert Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset inherited Knole in 1609. Whereas the builder of Charlton House had been a tutor to the Prince of Wales, Richard had been a close friend. Consequently Knole is on a far grander scale than Charlton House, although unsurprisingly both share common elements of the then fashionable Jacobean architecture and design.

Another direct descendant of Thomas Sackville, did not have to resort to questionable methods to fill the house with cast-off furniture from the royal palaces. It was a rather extravagant perk of his post in the royal household that he could help himself to royal furnishings which were deemed surplus to requirement. Thus the mansion retains a singular collection of Stuart royal chairs, stools and beds, including the famous red velvet Knole settee, the early 17th century prototype for the sofa on which I am currently reclining. The most sumptuous piece of furniture must be the spectacular  gilt four-poster bed made for King James II and which bears his initials.The state bed is currently the subject of a special appeal by the National Trust to preserve it.  By the time it was completed James did not have long to frolic under the ornate canopy before he was forced to slink off to a life-long exile in France whilst his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William, ruled in his stead. Little wonder that the royal couple were only too happy to have such a poignant reminder of James’s brief and wholly inglorious reign taken off their hands.


But it takes delusions of grandeur to a new level when the same Sackville relative decided to avail himself of the royal chamber pot housed within its own velvet close stool, very similar to the one belonging to King William III on display at Hampton Court. Even the Stuart sovereigns, who dreamt of the divine rights of kings, were subject to the need to void their bowels.


The Sackville family had bent their knee to female Monarchs for centuries but they seldom allowed Knole to pass into the hands of female owners. Thus, the death of a father or a husband would often oblige a daughter or a widow to seek a new roof to shelter under elsewhere. The 17th century Lady Anne Clifford was such a victim of England’s laws of primogeniture. Indeed she spent a good deal of her married life fighting for ownership of her late mother’s estates in the North of England. Her feckless husband Richard Sackville, erstwhile friend of Prince Henry Frederick, tried to bully her into coming to terms with the other, male, claimant. He callously used their daughter as a pawn with which to browbeat his wife into submission. Anne kept a diary of her unhappy life at Knole, a copy of which I bought whilst I was there with the intention of reading it later. Richard died and Anne eventually came into her mother’s estates when the other claimant died. It must have been a great relief for Anne Clifford her to leave behind Knole with all its sad memories and be able to live under a roof which was indisputably hers. Incidentally, I saw a painting of Lady Anne’s peacock of a husband at Kenwood House in the Suffolk Collection. I had used his portrait as embodying the antithesis of Beau Brummel’s strict dictum that less is more when it comes to the colour, cut and design of a gentleman’s clothing.


In the 18th century another woman’s close association with Knole came to an abrupt end for altogether very different reasons. Her reign as the de facto lady of the house ended when her lover married someone else. The dancer Giovanna Baccelli had been the mistress of the 3rd Duke of Dorset in the 18th century and had openly entertained her lover’s guests at Knole. Although she bore his son, the Duke wanted a legitimate heir to inherit his title and lands and so she found herself quietly pensioned off. Nowadays Giovanna has been immortalised at Knole by a rather risqué life-sized reclining nude plaster statue of her, which can be found at the foot of the Painted Staircase.

In the 20th century Vita Sackville-West was mortified that she could not inherit her childhood home of Knole when her own father died. Her friend, the novelist Virginia Woolf, was inspired by both Vita and Knole to write her classic novel “Orlando.” A facsimile of Virginia Woolf’s manuscript for “Orlando” is on display in the Great Hall.  I first read Orlando as a schoolgirl. It constitutes one of my favourite novels. Therefore my journey to Knole was something of a literary pilgrimage.

Even as late as 2004, women at Knole have been treated as 21st century versions of Jane Austen’s Bennett family, whose lives are inexorably blighted by the laws of primogeniture. Catherine Sackville-West recently told the Daily Mail that she had never been back to Knole since her father died in 2004. Catherine and her sisters had all been dispossessed for a male cousin, the current owner. Catherine felt to return to the house would be all too painful. Doubtless, it must have rankled that a precedent had been established in the 19th century for women to inherit Knole. The alternative would have been seeing the house and land passing out of the Sackville family altogether for lack of a suitable male heir.

Knole is a fascinating house with some equally impressive parkland attached. I walked through the latter when the house had closed for the day. Like Henry VIII, I was much taken with the deer. Unlike him, I had no designs on their flesh, although I am rather partial to venison. I kept as far as possible to the road so as not to frighten the deer. Most of them got up and moved further away as I walked past, except one young stag, with baby antlers, who stood his ground and refused to get up from off the grass and instead looked at me unflinchingly. It was almost as if even he realised that it was a man’s world at Knole.

I shall return to the subjectof Knole anon, when I shall describe the interior of the house.